Alternative Kinds of Freedom

Written by Troels Just

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A Definition
For us to be able to talk about alternative kinds of freedom, we must first define what freedom in itself is. Because the term “alternative kinds of freedom”, depends upon a definition of freedom itself, in order to be different, vary or build upon that original idea.

There probably are as many definitions of the word “freedom” as there are people thinking about one. I think most people have their own idea of what it means, even if it only varies slightly, from that of other people. The opinions of some people may be very similar, but I think that somewhere, deep down, you are going to find a difference, even if it’s just a very small one, based upon a person’s personal experiences.

The meaning of “freedom” can be very hard to define. Mainly because it can mean so many different things, but in a very general sense, freedom refers to the state of being free (i.e. unrestricted, unconfined or unfettered). Common “implementations” of freedom, in this very general sense, could be:

The Alternative Kinds of Freedom

These are terms, that define certain freedoms for things, that people might not usually associate with freedom, thus the term “alternative kinds of freedom”. Most people, sadly, don’t see, or feel, the need to associate stuff like computer software, music or modern culture in general, with freedom. This is one of the primary reasons why, these kinds of freedoms are often not widely known to the general public.

Free Software
During the 1960′ and 70′, software (eg. computer operating systems and programs) was seen as something “extra”, a kind of add-on, that the computer manufacturers provided to make the machines that they made useful to the people that bought them. In other words, the computer manufacturers made their money from the hardware. The people who bought computers at that time, were typically skilled enough to write their own software. Many computer enthusiasts, especially those from academia, saw software as human knowledge in the same way sort of way, that most people see an encyclopedia to be. Their views can be largely compared to the way science was, and in a lot of cases still is, viewed. Scientists commonly view their profession as a collaborative process, and exchange a lot of information, and share their knowledge in various ways. A good example of this is Niels Bohr’s atomic structure. Thanks to this contribution, scientists have been able to understand various things about ourselves, our planet and even objects out there in the universe. Likewise, the computer enthusiasts of the 1960′ viewed computing as a collaborative process. Free sharing of software and knowledge about that software, and computers in general, was very common. This exchange of software, knowledge and information usually happened during social engagements, like at a computer club meeting, or over this new thing called the Internet. However, during the late 1970′, computer manufacturers and companies that produced computer software, started putting strong restrictions on their software. License agreements that the users often had to accept, to be able to use a program, prohibited computer users from sharing with each other. In some cases, the license even put restrictions on how much a user was allowed to know, about a specific program. In other words, you were not allowed to take the program, look very closely at it, and figure out, exactly what it was doing in your machine (Reverse engineering). One of the pioneers of this new way of doing things, was a small company out of Albuquerque, New Mexico called Microsoft.

Naturally, many computer users felt that the license agreements of computer programs, were way too restrictive, and denied them rights that they felt that they as computer users, were entitled to. People who ignored a company’s license, and went ahead and shared the software risked getting sued by the license holders. That risk scared lot of people into not sharing software, or even knowledge they might have had of a program.

At MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, in which a lot of computer development was going on, the practice of sharing computer programs was extremely common. So as it started going away, one computer enthusiast by the name of Richard Matthew Stallman, started to rebel against that new idea of treating computer programs as “corporate property”, and deep knowledge of how it worked as a trade secret. Richard believed very very strongly in the idea of being able to exchange computer programs, and knowledge of about those, freely with others. From Richard’s perspective, it’s unethical to deliberately deprive people of human knowledge, which is just what people like Hewlett Packard, Microsoft and others were doing with their new proprietary software licenses.

After an incident where he was unable to fix a printer at MIT, because the company that made it denied him access to what he needed to fix it, Richard started taking a quite aggressive attitude against “proprietary software”. On September 27th in 1983, Richard published an announcement on the Internet, in which he explained that by not sharing software with other people, he felt that he betrayed them, and the public in general.

Richard also stated, that he was going to start making new software, that explicitly allowed users to share, change and improve it. In January of 1984, Richard resigned from his job at MIT, and set out on an agenda to liberate computer users from the restrictions of big companies. By writing his own software to give away to other people, so that they never had to give up the freedom to collaborate with each other, in this collaborative process of using and developing computers.

To accomplish this, Richard founded the GNU project, and later the Free Software Foundation to support it, as part of a new movement called the free software movement. Richard also defined the term “free software”, as software that users can use, copy, (re-)distribute, study, change and improve.

The GNU project and the free software movement has to this day, created tens of thousands of free (as in liberty) programs that users can freely use for any purpose, study, share with friends or even sell as long as the ones receiving the software gets the same freedoms. Well known examples of software, that has come out of the free software movement include the GNU/Linux operating system, the Mozilla Firefox web browser and the OpenOffice.org office suite, which computer users can use instead of the widely used proprietary Microsoft Windows operating system, Internet Explorer web browser and Microsoft Office suite.

Free software was the first of the alternative freedoms to come into existence, and has been a huge inspiration for all the others, or has even directly influenced the creation of the others.

Free Music
With clear similarities to the free software philosophy, the term “free music” refers to music that can be freely listened to, copied, redistributed and modified for any purpose. What sets free music apart from free software however, besides the fact that music and computer software are two very different things, is that depending on the license of the music, works may be copied, distributed or modified for either commercial or noncommercial purposes. Free music can either be music that is in the public domain, or published under a license, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Open Audio license, or some of the Creative Commons licenses. Free music does not mean that a fee of some sort should not, or could not be involved. The word “free” in “free music” refers to freedom, not to price.

In 1991, a working group at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany, used some results of the Digital Audio Broadcast (DAB) research project, that had been done at the Deutsche Forschungs- und Versuchsanstalt für Luft- und Raumfahrt (later on called Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt, German Aerospace Center), to create a digital audio format which was called MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3 or commonly known as just MP3. Since it’s release to the public, MP3 has made it very easy to digitally store music on computers and move to small pen size MP3 playing devices.

Computers are really efficient when it comes to copying material, and because of this ability, and the creation of the MP3 audio format, so called “file sharing” technology has become very popular in recent years. A file sharing network allows the user to easily share a file of any kind with other people on the network. File sharing networks are very frequently used for distributing music over the Internet. This trend was started by the creation of the Napster file sharing network by Shawn Fanning in 2000. However, since this essentially allowed people listening to music to get entire albums for nothing, the recording industry got quite unhappy about it. According to them, Napster, and later file sharing networks such as KaZaA and Morpehus, have been responsible for billions of dollars in income damages, although studies have shown that while Napster’s popularity was at it’s highest, the sales of music CDs were higher than ever before.

After having killed the Napster file sharing network in 2002, in the middle of 2003 the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) announced, that they would start filing lawsuits against individuals who had “illegally downloaded music off file sharing networks”. To this day, this has resulted in thousands of lawsuits against users of file sharing networks such as the original Napster, KaZaA, Morpheus, LimeWire etc. etc. Naturally, a lot of people didn’t like the practices of the RIAA, and similarly with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), because many people still bought CD’s, despite the music being widely available at no cost on file sharing networks, and yet they still got sued. People also got sued because they used some music in a production of their own, which they felt they should be allowed to do, because they had either already paid for the music or because they felt that they were just promoting the artists, whose music they used.

This prompted the creation of the free music movement. Unlike the free software movement, the free music movement was not started by one single person at one specific date. It was the result of the combined work of individuals like Ram Samudrala (author of “The Free Music Philosophy”), Lawrence Lessig (founder of Creative Commons) and groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Creative Commons.

The free music movement argues that the restrictions that are put on music by the mainstream record companies, both downplays promotion of artists and hinder creativity. According to the free music movement, allowing people to freely redistribute music, is basically free promotion for the artist. Because as people run into music, that are new to them, on a file sharing network, they typically tell their friends about it. The free music movement also argues that preventing people from taking a lyric or an entire song and building upon that hinders creativity and innovation.

Several new independent recording labels, have come out of the free music movement. Most of them use the some of the Creative Commons licenses, which grant the user several rights they wouldn’t normally get from the mainstream record labels, such as the ability to share the music with their friends, and use it for their own productions (home videos, educational videos, hobbyist radio shows, their own music etc. etc.). Probably the best known example of these record labels, is Magnatune.com. Founded by John Buckman in 2003, it has over 200 artists signed, and over 450 albums in it’s catalog of music.

Free Knowledge / Open Knowledge
“Free Knowledge” refers to “knowledge” such as books, articles, scientific papers and educational material that anyone may use for any purpose, modify and redistribute as they see fit.

“Open Knowledge” is a term defined by the Open Knowledge Foundation, and it essentially means the same as free knowledge. However, it has one clear difference. “Free Knowledge” is a very loosly defined term, in the sense that people kind of define it for themselves, because there isn’t any accepted definition of it. It can refer to material, that can either be used for commercial or non-commercial purposes, which depends on the material’s license. “Open Knowledge” however, explicitly has to be usable for both commercial and non-commercial purposes. An example could be an article, to qualify as open knowledge, it must be possible to publish this article in a big-name newspaper, or just give it to your neighbor.

Of course knowledge has really always been free in terms of humans learning stuff and teaching others, but if we’re talking about published works, like books or articles, then they’re often under restrictive copyright laws that often don’t allow people to do much with it.

The idea of free knowledge is to make knowledge available for everyone to learn from and use in their daily lives.

Free knowledge has in recent years been very very centralized on the web. The best source for good quality articles on millions of things is the free (as in liberty) encyclopedia known as Wikipedia. Some people are all up in arms about the fact that anybody can edit Wikipedia, which is the whole point of Wikipedia, it’s meant to be a collection of human knowledge that benefits others. There are school teachers and university professors putting hundreds of man hours into policing articles on Wikipedia making them free of vandalism, of course with the freedom for anyone to contribute to Wikipedia also come the risk of informatio being vandalised or inaccuarate, but especially the point of vadalism is often fixed quickly, so it’s not a big concern, and if you’re writing a paper for scientific research you should always check to see if your sources are correct, no matter what they are, even if it’s like the Encyclopædia Britannica. You gotta take the good with the bad, as you do everything in life.

Wikipedia is part of a wide set of sites, you could start to call them knowledge databases, in a network known as Wikimedia, which, largely with the help of the global Internet community, not only provides a free encyclopedia, with over 1½ million articles, but also a big database of quotes, a news site that anyone can contribute to, a dictionary, a database of species of Earth life, a “library” of free publications, and now also a collection of text books, that by in large, contains educational material, which poor people can really benefit from, as the free knowledge is all there for the good of everyone.

There is one catch to Wikimedia, and this is only an issue if you’re a bad person, because you can’t take content from say Wikipedia, redistribute it and claim that other people don’t have the same rights that you do, that’s a part of Wikipedia license that ensures the free knowledge is ALWAYS free!